Who Said You Could Do That?
Is it okay for just anyone to belly dance or twerk?
Everyone has a different perspective of dance. Some see it as an art form used for celebrations and competitions; for others, it's an escape from the reality of their problems, a way for them to express their feelings to one another. There are so many ways that dance could be interpreted, but they all are associated with a positive feeling. But imagine if someone decided that you shouldn’t be allowed to do the one thing that makes you feel happy and free just because of your culture, the color of your skin, or just the fact that you have no racial ties to the origins of that certain dance. Is it really okay for just anyone to do the belly dance or twerk?
According to American economist and blogger Arnold Kling, it should be. In fact, he praises cultural appropriation, enamored with the idea of people sharing their cultural roots with others, believing that it would result in a fellowship between dancers around the world, maybe even a deeper understanding of each other. In his article “Let’s Celebrate Cultural Appropriation in Dance,” Kling mentions moments in the past where a variety of choreographers would visit other countries just to study their dances hoping to get some inspiration to help them think of ideas for their own dances. He focuses on Israeli Dancing, listing all the other dances that were used to help it evolve into what it is today while also claiming that his generation is a majority of liberal-minded people who believed that mixing cultures was a way to bring people closer, which was a good thing and wishes that “younger people could still celebrate cultural exchange” (Kling 48) and didn’t “feel the urge to condemn it” (Kling 49).
With this in mind, it is difficult to see why people immediately jump to accuse someone of cultural appropriation when that person is simply moving their bodies to a rhythm. Of course, we could always try to understand the opposing side of the discussion, like Valeria Lo Iacono Symonds does in her article, who has completed a Ph.D. in dance and cultural heritage at the Cardiff Metropolitan University. Symonds points out the fact that dancing has been a huge part of most cultures since the beginning of human civilization. She believes that the actual issue for those who yell “appropriation” is that they fear that people that don’t originate from their heritage would misrepresent what the dance is all about. She then argues that there are different views on how you can respect the dance’s culture properly while you practice it. Not only does she call attention to the fact that exploring different dances should be encouraged because it helps new dancers have the confidence that makes them creative enough to do what they do. She also claims that it is “important to allow heritage to be flexible” (Symonds 62) and that we should “incorporate change and give people the freedom to create” (Symonds 63).
Most may think that the only issue that the opposed have with this situation would be the way other people represent their heritage, but for Palestinian-American novelist Randa Jarrar, it goes deeper than that. Jarrar believes that white women don’t have the right to belly dance because of their reasoning behind it. In her article, “Why I can’t stand white belly dancers,” she starts off simply stating how ridiculous it is that when you Google the term “belly dance” (also known as Raqs Sharqi) the first pictures that pop up are of Caucasian women in flowing, flimsy skirts “playing at brownness” (Jarrar 3). She begins by talking about the origin of the term belly dance and immediately accuses white belly dancers of continuing a century-old tradition of appropriation, not caring about how they view their practice. She speaks some of the moments in her life when she saw professional belly dancers at family occasions growing up (even mentions the time she was a dancer for her own wedding) and describes how the atmosphere's dynamic changed when they danced, how it felt like a different kind of eroticism, maybe even powerful with some playfulness intended. Jarrar claims that she has to remember to avoid certain Arabian restaurants because of how uncomfortable she feels when she goes to one with a white belly dancer performing. She admits that they are not terrible dancers (even with the costumes they wear to imitate Arabians) but goes on to mention that she was thin and didn't remind her of Tahia Carioca or Hind Rostom or her favorite belly dancer, Fifi Abdo (Jarrar 34). She refers to the time Western news outlets were publishing stories that claimed “belly dancing was a dying art” (Jarrar 48) and doesn’t waste any time in explaining that it seemed that way because white women had moved to Egypt out of their obsession with belly dancing and were now appropriating it from local dancers. Another thing she doesn’t like is when white belly dancers change their names for Arabian performances; for example, Suzy McCue becomes Samirah Layali, which according to Jarrar make no sense in Arabic. She has confronted some of these dancers in the past which usually resulted in them claiming that it was ok because they learned from an Arabian teacher. To sum up her opinion, Jarrar believes that white women are using Arabian women as vessels for their own benefits.
Another author who agrees wholeheartedly with this claim is Sam Doloncot, a fellow Arabian-American who dislikes white belly dancers. In fact, she responds to Jarrar’s article with her own essay starting off with, “it’s not appreciation, it’s appropriation!”(Doloncot 4). She doesn’t dig into the issue as deep as Jarrar does but she does explain why she feels that white women should “find another form of self-expression” (Doloncot 20) and that they should make sure they are not appropriating someone else. She also believes that belly dancing does not exist for white women to express themselves sexually or for them to try and find kinship with people from that culture. Doloncot believes that their country as a whole should defer to white women’s views on anything that involves Arabian culture since they “speak for all Arabs against the tyranny of white American privilege” (Doloncot 37).
Belly dancing is not the only dance that has been involved with cultural appropriation. As believed by journalist Christiana Mbakwe, twerking has become majorly appropriated by white people. In her article, “The Origins of Twerking: What It Is, What It Means, and How It Got Appropriated,” she doesn’t fail to explain that twerking has been around for centuries, long before Miley Cyrus “introduced” it to the mass media and created a monumental fuss about it. Mbakwe tells us about how the perspective of twerking has evolved (for the better or worse, who knows?!) throughout her years and that it was never meant to be seen as something ghetto fabulous or scandalous, which is the way people view it as now. She mentions that she has variants of “twerking her entire life”(Mbakwe 19) and remembers old women from her church twerking to an upbeat praise song like there was no tomorrow. It was originally used to express joy and happiness at a family occasion. She talks about the roots where twerking originated from which are mostly places where there is a high concentration of African descent and also mentions where it is commonly associated presently, like New Orleans. She believes that the only reason twerking was “discovered” and was now so popular among the white folk was because of the pop singer, Miley Cyrus’s music video for her song “We Can’t Stop” where she is shown surrounded by black girls and trying to twerk along with them. Cyrus even goes as far as to slap a black girl’s butt, which Mbakwe describes as using a colorful prop to make her music video look cooler. Mbakwe continues on to say that because of this, Cyrus would just earn profit and credit for “inventing” something she didn’t and the originators wouldn’t even get credit for any of it. She finishes up with saying that we need to “respect the rich cultural heritage” twerking draws from and to “remember the people who kept it alive long before it was trendy” (Mbakwe).
With all of this evidence in mind, should people really be able to dance without having to worry about their race or color of skin? I say yes, because the first thing we all are before being black or white is human. Dance isn’t just about exploring roots and culture. It's also about diversity, creativity, and wanting to share that special feeling you have when dancing with everybody around you. As a dancer and black woman myself, I see absolutely no problem with sharing my culture with someone else. Of course, if I see someone disrespecting my culture, I will confront them without hesitation, but if they respect my culture and want to learn more about it, then I wouldn’t be mad about anything. In fact, I would be proud and happy that someone wants to explore my culture. We can’t use the excuse of being afraid of our heritage being misrepresented because it would hinder us the joy of being apart of a culture that people are interested in. A dance isn’t created by just one culture. I believe that we should share our talents fearlessly. All dances, no matter where they originate from, started with a human, a feeling, and a step.
Doloncot, Sam. “Yes, White Belly Dancing is Inexcusable Cultural Appropriation” The Daily Banter. 5 March 2014.
Jarrar, Randa. “Why I can’t stand white belly dancers” salon. 4 March 2014
Mbakwe, Christiana. “The Origins of Twerking: What it Is, What it Means, and How it Got Appropriated” xojane. 30 August 2013.
Kling, Arnold. “Let’s Celebrate Cultural Appropriation in Dance” Medium. 9 February 2018.
Symonds, Valeria Lo Iacono. “ When does borrowing become cultural appropriation in dance?” The Conversation. 10 August 2017.